Why are the armed forces predominantly male? Is aggression simply a biological or genetic element of masculinity? Or do we train boys to become aggressive so that they are useful for war?
It seems to me that it is difficult, if not impossible, to use male and female genetic construction to explain why war is still largely an arena for men rather than women. None of the biological or genetic differences is sufficient to explain men’s almost exclusive participation in war. So, why are the armed forces predominantly male? And why are armaments and the language of war so frequently symbols of phallic sexual power? Another question is, if men were the ones to participate in conflict in the historical past – protecting their constantly child-bearing women – then why has war continued to be male-dominated in our changed social environment?
Goldstein’s* research into gender and war disproves certain myths which are still commonly held about contemporary warfare, such as:
- that male testosterone levels make men aggressive;
- that men are better soldiers because they are heavier and stronger,
- that women do not make good soldiers; and
- that men go to war to protect their women or children.
Let’s have a look at some of these myths:
Goldstein says there are contradictions throughout research on testosterone and aggression. Genetically both males and females carry the ‘genes’ of aggression. Under the age of two, there is little difference between boys and girls in their choice of play. Then we start to train boys into aggression and violence – through the toys and games we choose for them (and eventually they choose for themselves), and the TV programmes and movies they watch. Girls are not encouraged to allow their aggression to become violent. (Note that women can be as aggressive as men.) The result is that before the age of seven, and, according to James Dabbs (Heroes, Rogues and Lovers)*, when boys’ testosterone levels are still very similar to girls, boys begin to perform aggressively and violently.
As for a link between aggression and testosterone, the relationship is subtle and complex. The strongest evidence shows that men’s testosterone levels respond to competitive situations. Levels rise before a competitive event, no matter whether it is a competitive work situation or an aggressive situation. Levels then either go up or down depending on whether the man, emotionally and mentally, feels he has ‘won’ or ‘lost’. However, any effect of testosterone on aggression is not enough to explain the masculinity of war.
The most important known effect of testosterone is that it increases size and strength. But, nowadays, strength and size are insignificant for many jobs within the armed forces. Men are generally bigger and stronger than women – but height and weight and strength differ significantly among races. There are always some women who will equal the largest, strongest, fastest soldiers. There are many smaller, weaker and slower men who are included. But women are still excluded from most military forces.
Also there is no corollary between winning and the ‘strongest’. War depends on many other factors. Strength and speed are less and less relevant to modern warfare. Females possess highly relevant abilities such as rapid fine motor skills. Results show that women have the capability to participate in all kinds of actions and operations. The problems lie in men’s difficulties in adjusting to women’s participation.
Some men claim women benefit from their protection and the hardships men go through. This is a senseless argument as women do not benefit from or enforce men’s suffering in war. The war system is embedded in the patriarchal society and benefits neither men nor women. It does however benefit leaders and many of the money-making concerns of war. The protection and welfare of women and children is certainly not the chief goal when war is considered. The United Nations Development Program states that civilian (mainly women and children) casualties have moved from 5% to between 75% and 90% in the 1990s.
Investment in armaments is often at the detriment of the more valid needs of the country, often of the very women and children that men pretend to protect. Additionally, war methods always go beyond what is necessary to defend a country’s women and children.
We have to look elsewhere for the link between war and masculinity. Let’s face it, in our minds, men and war go together – not women and war. There certainly is a widespread reluctance to allow women into war in general and into combat positions especially.
War is reserved for men to display their masculinity.
If women were included in large numbers in the armed forces, doing the same job as men, the motivation of ‘being a real man’ would be broken down. Similarly, one of the base concepts of masculinity, of the strong and bold protector, would collapse. Men would be humiliated by women’s presence in a military no longer the home of masculine courage and discipline. It would trample the man’s ego. It would also upset the useful and ideological concept of masculinity.
In my next post I want to look at how we socialise boys into aggression. See: https://caygin.wordpress.com/chapters-3/socialized-into-aggression/